illy’s eyes popped open. Mommy was gone. Finally! He reached under his pillow for the small, brass egg timer he had stolen from the kitchen. He twisted the dial as far as it would go and placed it up on his dresser. He would have to wake up every hour, but it was the only way. He had to get to his presents before his sister woke up and ruined everything! Emily was too little to understand that birthdays were different than Christmas. Every year, she would grab one of his gifts and claim that it was hers. “I wish she would grow up! Stupid baby.”
At last, the bell rang for the eighth time. Five AM. He leaped out of bed and scrambled down the hall. The far end of the living room was drowning in boxes. Mommy had wrapped the presents in the Sunday comics, hoping her son would spend a few minutes rereading his favorites, and she would get to sleep in a little later. It never worked. Over the stack of gifts, hanging high on the living room wall, was a rainbow-colored banner: Happy 6th Birthday, Billy!
His eyes grew wide, backing away slowly, until he was stopped by the living room wall. “I’ve seen that before…”
Perhaps one of his friends had had a similar banner at their party. No, he was the oldest in his class. None of his friends would have their sixth birthday for several more weeks. Besides, he never saw them anymore. Shaking his head, he decided this mystery could wait. It was time to wake up Mommy and Daddy.
Mommy and Daddy were still in bed, the covers pulled up to their chins. The bedroom curtains were tightly closed, as always. Daddy often joked that the curtains in their house were closed so much, they didn’t even need windows behind them. Billy climbed up onto his parents’ bed, jumping on the mattress. “It’s my birthday! Wake up! I want to open prezzies! Wake up!”
Mommy opened her eyes and sighed. She sat up and grabbed Billy around the waist, pulling him gently into her lap. “Morning, Sunshine.” She brushed the hair back from his face, kissed his forehead, and forced a smile. “Go into the kitchen and I’ll make you your special birthday pancakes.” As he climbed down, a gentle swat on the behind sent him on his way.
Daddy rolled over and groaned. “Can’t you let him open his presents on his own? I mean, really! Why do we have to be there?”
“Do we have to go through this again? I have to take pictures! Besides, we should be there. It’s not like anyone else can come to see him.” She pulled on her tattered, pink robe and bunny slippers and strolled down the hall to the kitchen. Billy was sitting in his chair, fork in one hand, butter knife in the other. She fixed him a plate of pancakes with strawberry syrup smiles, the same as she had made him for his last birthday, and the one before that, and the one before that…
After breakfast, Daddy trudged into the living room, eyes still half-closed, and plopped on the couch next to Mommy. He picked up Emily and held her in his arms, struggling to keep the fussy three-year-old in his lap and away from the presents.
Billy kneeled on the floor in front of his gifts and ripped open the first package. A toy spaceship, complete with flashing lights and soft foam missiles. “Oh, it’s like the one I got last year.”
“What are you talking about?” Daddy asked. “Those are brand new. You saw the commercial on television last week. Remember?”
Mommy laughed, poking Daddy the side playfully. “Oh, you’re silly. Expecting a six-year-old to remember something that happened a whole week ago!” To Billy, she added, “Trust us, honey, it’s a new toy. You can check your toy box later. I’m sure you won’t find anything like it.”
“If you say so,” Billy muttered. He put down the spaceship and grabbed another package, ripping at the paper. Smiling, Mommy grabbed her camera.
After breakfast, Billy asked if they were going to the zoo, or the movies, or out for ice cream. “Tomorrow,” Daddy sighed. Mommy wanted to say something more, but Daddy shook his head at her. “Today, you need to stay indoors.”
Floating down a long hallway, either side lined with gigantic, silver tubes. Ride the elevator to the clean room, where they’re doing the experiments. Screaming. A woman in a white lab coat struggling to unlock a cage. Another baby rhesus monkey trying to strangle itself with its own hands.
“Billy? Billy, wake up!” Mommy sat on the edge of her son’s bed, touching him gently. He bolted upright, whimpering. “It’s alright, baby… Shh. I heard you crying. You were just having a nightmare.”
“Mommy, what does ‘cryonics’ mean?” he asked between his sobs.
“What?” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Where did you hear that word?”
“I don’t know. I must have heard it in my dream.”
“Well, don’t talk about that,” she snapped. “That word is for grownups. Now, I think another pill will make the bad dreams go away…” She hurried to the bathroom and grabbed the bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet. She poured a small glass of water and came back to her son’s bedroom. “Here you go, hon. Take this.” She shoved the pill in his mouth and tipped the water down his throat. He sputtered, the water splashing on his pajamas and sheets. “There now. All gone?”
“Y-yes,” he choked. As usual, he opened his mouth to prove that the pill was gone. “I’m sorry I said a grownup word. I won’t say it again.”
“See that you don’t. Now, go back to sleep. It’s way past your bedtime.”
As soon as the door clicked shut, he slipped a finger into his mouth and scooped the pill out from under his tongue. Grabbing his flashlight, he sat down by the bedroom door and waited.
Two hours later, the hallway light finally snapped off and his parents’ bedroom door closed. He crept into the hall. His father’s gray wool jacket was crumpled on the floor by the front door. Something told him to try there first. Digging through the pockets, he found a small, sliver case with white cards inside. He recognized Daddy’s name, and after it were the letters “C-E-O.” The rest of the embossed words on the cards were too difficult for him to read, but the logo in the corner was definitely familiar: the letters U-C-L-E printed over a silver tube. Where had he seen that before?
The rest of the pockets were empty. He decided to move on to the attic. His parents hid things there sometimes. He headed out to the garage and climbed the steep staircase. The family’s artificial Christmas tree was tucked away in one corner of the attic, next to the stack of boxes that held the ornaments, wreaths, and strings of lights. Beyond the pile of holiday ephemera was a long, black trunk, a footlocker from an army surplus store.
There were yellowing newspapers inside, stacked neatly and wrapped in heavy string. He grabbed a stack and dragged it out of the trunk. It landed on the floor with a loud plop, stirring up the dusty attic air.
Tugging away the string, he unfolded the top paper in the stack. The front page featured a gigantic picture of a smiling, bearded man in a white lab coat, something like Santa Claus with a PhD. Next to him was Daddy, who seemed rather uncomfortable and awkward by comparison. They were standing outdoors, in front of a gigantic skyscraper with mirrored windows. Daddy was behind a pair of infant rhesus monkeys in a cage.
Billy scanned the page, looking for words he recognized. “Monkey… amazing… only aged three weeks. First… since the war… many others…dead.” The rest of the story was scientific terms and other long words he couldn’t understand.
He tossed the newspaper aside and peered in the trunk. His flashlight caught the edge of something shiny. He reached under the stack of newspapers and tugged. A small photo album.
“That’s me. I’m in the living room, with my presents, and up on the wall is that same banner from yesterday. Wait, what am I wearing? I had my dinosaur pajamas on yesterday, but that’s my spaceship pajamas there!” He checked the banner in the photo again. It still said “Happy Sixth Birthday, Billy!”
The next photo showed him opening his presents. The first package was a toy spaceship, complete with flashing lights and soft foam missiles. The next two photos showed more presents, all identical to the ones he had received yesterday. Yet there he was, in different clothes. A photo of his father showed him in an old tee shirt and jeans, not the bathrobe he had worn the day before.
He found another photo album at the bottom of the trunk. These photos showed him in the living room, sitting under the same birthday banner, opening the same presents, but he was wearing gray overalls and a baseball cap. One photo caught his father in a yawn. He was wearing a sweater and corduroy slacks. Four more photo albums showed four other parties. Save for the clothes, they were identical to the first.
“This doesn’t make any sense. How many times can I have the same birthday?” He yawned and stretched, and then covered his mouth. “Better be quiet! I can’t get caught up here. I don’t want another spanking…”
He moved the last stack of newspapers to the side, uncovering a silver disk in a clear, plastic case. “A DVD… Some home movies? There’s no label on it. I’ll have to watch it later.” He stuck the tab under his arm and continued the search.
He explored the rest of the attic, but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. He replaced in the trunk, careful to leave it exactly as he had found it. He crept back down the stairs to the garage, down the hall, and to his bedroom. He closed the door gently and climbed back into bed, tucking the DVD under his pillow. The night was filled with fitful dreams.
I can’t believe it! It’s been two years, and our group of monkeys still looks like infants! I’ll have to give Walton a raise… He’s done excellent work here today. – No, no, no! Oh, god, stop! Betty, get me the tranquilizer gun, quick! It’s happening again!
Billy awoke to find his parents in his room. Mommy was holding a large garbage bag, and Daddy was tossing toys inside. He pushed aside Billy’s old stuffed animals and plastic building blocks, and grabbed the shiny spaceship Billy had been given for his birthday. A fire truck and a box of action figures followed, more presents from the previous day.
Billy sat up in bed and cried. “What are you doing with my toys?”
Daddy turned, startled. “What the hell? You told me he would sleep though this!”
“I thought he would,” Mommy said. “I gave him one of the blue pills. They usually make him sleep. It’s one of the side-effects of the – “
“Leave my toys alone!” Billy shouted, jumping out of bed. He ran across the room and grabbed for the bag, but Daddy pulled it away.
“What should we do?” Daddy asked Mommy. “This has never happened before.”
“How the hell should I know? You’re the biochemist! You figure it out!”
Billy shoved his way past his parents and ran out of the bedroom. He stormed down the hall and into his sister’s nursery. A moment later, Mommy burst into the room. Billy tried to get away from her, tried to crawl under the crib, but he was too big. She grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet. Behind her, Daddy stormed into the room, the bottle of pills in his hand.
“What’s happening?” Billy screamed. “Are you even my parents?”
“How dare you say that!” Mommy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Of course we are. I went through twenty hours of labor to bring you into the world, mister.”
“And you’ve been a pain the ass ever since,” Daddy muttered. He thrust the bottle into Mommy’s hand. “Just give him some damn pills. I’m tired of this shit.”
She sighed deeply. “Now, honey, he’s really frightened. Maybe you should explain everything.”
“Fine. Billy, come with me.” Daddy grabbed Billy’s wrist and yanked him into the living room. “Have a seat on the couch. We have to have a little talk. …I work for a company called United Cryonics and Life Extension. Years ago, I was conducting a research project with the head of the company, and we developed a way to dramatically slow down the aging process. I had trouble getting volunteers for human trials, so your mother and I tested the treatment on ourselves. We are aging at one percent of the normal rate. Do you know what that means?”
“N-no,” he sniffed, still feeling close to tears.
“Every hundred years that go by, your mother and I only get one year older. Well, when you and your sister were born, we discovered something amazing: the effect is hereditary. You and your sister age slowly, as well. And that’s where your medication comes in.”
“My medication makes me age slowly?” Billy asked, bewildered.
“No. Your medication deals with… let’s call it a ‘side effect.’ Your mother and I are adults, so the treatment just means we age very slowly. You and your sister are children. The treatment means you don’t grow up very fast. Slowing down the development process in a child makes them… sick. Not like when you get a cold. Sick in the head. You see, being little for so long is very frustrating for a child. Lack of physical coordination, being small, having to follow rules and obey grownups… A child’s minds struggle to deal with the stress, and eventually, something breaks. But I found a way to fix it! The pills are a special medicine that makes you forget things.”
“Because if I can’t remember being stuck as a kid, I don’t get upset, and I don’t get sick in the head?”
“Exactly, Billy. We found one of your pills in the trash. Not taking your pill is very naughty. That’s why you have been so upset today!”
“Oh… I don’t want to be sick.”
“Then you should take your damn pills!” Daddy walked into the kitchen, returning a moment later with a plastic cup full of water. He handed Billy the cup and one of his pills. Billy popped the pill in his mouth and took a drink of water. Daddy pried Billy’s mouth open with his hands. He poked under his tongue and on the sides of his mouth. It was gone.
Mommy walked into the room, Emily fast asleep in her arms. “Is it done?” she asked.
“He took the pill,” Daddy said, smirking.
“Good, good. Now Billy, you’ve had a rough morning. I think you should go back to bed, and give your medication a chance to work.”
Billy walked back to his bedroom, already feeling lightheaded from the medication. He climbed into bed, but stopped when he noticed something sticking out from under his pillow. “The movie! I never watched it…” He walked across the room to his television and popped in the DVD. The screen flashed blue, and then a bearded man in a white lab coat appeared. The man from the newspaper.
“Dr. William West, UCLE, last journal entry.” He paused, rubbing his forehead. “…My anti-aging work is a failure. The treatments virtually halt the aging process in rhesus monkeys, but in humans, they only cause hallucinations. The worst of the subjects becomes insane, even suicidal… Fortunately, my work in cryonics shows increasing promise. If I can not save people from death, perhaps future generations shall restore them to new life, after the war ends, after the radiation finally fades.”
There was more to the video, but Billy fell asleep before he could hear it.
Daddy sat on the couch, watching Mommy walk with their daughter. “I think we should up his dosage,” he said. “He might be building up a tolerance.”
“I’m starting to feel guilty again. Are we doing the right thing?”
“What, would you rather have him remember the war?” Daddy rubbed the back of his neck. “Would you rather have him remember that his grandparents, his teachers, his friends are all dead? Would you rather have him crying to go outside again? The kid’s too young! He can’t understand what war is, what radiation is. It’s better to have him forget. So figure out a new way to deal with your guilt. We’re not giving him Christmas once a month, too.”
“You’re right, dear. You’re right. Let me put Emily to bed, and we can go back to sleep.”